Advocating Regulation of Children's Television

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In November, President Reagan pocket vetoed a bill that would have minimally limited the number of advertising minutes on children's television and required broadcasters to offer some educational programming for children. By blocking this legislation--which had strong bipartisan support in both houses of the Congress--Mr. Reagan did a grave disservice to children, their families, and society.

The grounds cited by the former President for killing the bill--he invoked the First Amendment and "freedom of expression"--are fallacious. To protect healthy play and the development of imagination in childhood, we need comprehensive regulation of children's television.

The recently vetoed bill was the first of its kind to reach the White House since the deregulation of the broadcasting industry began soon after Mr. Reagan took office. Since 1983, the Federal Communications Commission has eliminated the regulations that historically have protected children from commercial exploitation: Guidelines on the number of advertising minutes permitted on children's television, educational programming, and the coordination of TV programs with commercial toys have all been systematically removed.

Deregulation has transformed the children's television and toy industries. Once TV producers and toy companies were allowed to market their wares together, a whole new set of industry trends erupted. TV shows were developed to sell toys (for example, "G.I. Joe," "Transformers," "My Little Pony"), and both industries shared in the profits. Toys also became more gender-specific, with separate program-and-toy packages marketed to boys and girls.

Every change in toy marketing and TV programming since deregulation has resulted from the industries' drive to increase sales and profits--not from a desire to promote what is best for children. And booming sales of the TV-linked toys have proved the effectiveness of the "program-length commercial" marketing approach.

One of the most important tools for children's emotional and intellectual growth, healthy play brings together their personal needs, experiences, and understanding. But for play to fulfill its role, children must shape it themselves.

Today, many children are losing control of their play. Television-based toys channel them away from the play they would naturally create. Their own ideas are lost as they imitate the scripts they see on TV with single-purpose toys that lock them into repeating a narrow range of actions.

What child would even understand, much less invent, the words that accompany "The Renegades," a set of G.I. Joe action figures: "The Renegades aren't carved on the roster of any existing military unit, there is no computer access to their dossiers, and they are paid through a special fund earmarked for 'Pentagon Pest Control.' This gives the Renegades a freedom of operation that the Joes can't match. It also means that the government can deny everything if they are caught."

And much of the content of these materials is sex-role stereotyped to an extreme degree--for example, the violent and aggressive behavior of G.I. Joe and Rambo, and the female, sexy, teenage behaviors of Jem and Barbie. Such models influence young boys' and girls' ideas about who they are and what they are capable of doing.

Supporters of deregulation often say that parents determine--in the marketplace--the success of products for children: Products that do not sell will not last. And since sales of toys, especially those linked to television, have been risingsteadily since deregulation, the industry and its backers claim that parents favor the current approach. But our research paints a different picture.

Parents repeatedly tell us of the tremendous tensions they experience with their children over toys and television--tensions that they feel are unhealthy for their family life. Many of these parents do try to limit or ban television and television-linked toys, but they say that monitoring is a constant struggle.

The licensing of TV logos has put its images everywhere from T-shirts and lunchboxes to toothbrushes, and friends have TV-linked toys and televisions to watch if children cannot watch at home. The cumulative force of this exposure pulls most children along while their parents are left behind.

We believe that simply advertising products to children on television is unethical. Children are ready victims to manufacturers' desire to sell them more and more toys. They are impressed by the dramatic features of the toys and ads they see, but have difficulty grasping play value or underlying ethical values. They can't think easily about the whole of what they already have and how a new toy might fit in with it.

And children cannot fully distinguish between advertisements and programs. They are unable to understand the very nature of an ad--that its sole purpose is to get them to buy a toy--because they are incapable of considering internal motivations. They cannot make logical judgments about good and bad products or about how the reality of a toy matches up with what an ad or program says about it. They cannot make decisions about the kinds of toys that are, and are not, good for them. Nor can they understand the ethical or economic arguments their parents give them for setting limits on certain toys and TV shows, especially when their environment is inundated with images of them.

The self-regulated marketplace favored by the opponents of controls requires the existence of an equal and reciprocal relationship between producers and consumers. It assumes that consumers, by making informed decisions about what they buy, have a voice in determining what is placed on the market, and that manufacturers, in their desire to increase profits, respond by producing what the public wants. In such a relationship, the people who do the consuming have the freedom to choose.

But when the consumers are children, none of these requirements are met. Children cannot make informed decisions, nor do they have freedom of choice; their minds are made up as soon as they see flashy advertisements or TV programs connected to a toy.

The argument that regulating television violates free speech is also fallacious when applied to children. First, a longstanding tradition views children as different from adults in the legislative and legal systems. Children cannot vote, for instance--a restriction that limits their right to free speech. And government historically has performed a protective function for children. In fact, there are ample precedents for arguing that the government has not only the right but the responsibility to guard children against social abuses from which they are unable to protect themselves.

Second, the backers of deregulation misconstrue the application of the First Amendment's safeguards when they say that any attempt to control children's television limits the open expression of ideas. While the free speech of toy manufacturers and TV progammers is being protected under deregulation, children are losing freedom of expression--as their play is increasingly controlled by outside forces, and their ideas and values are shaped by people whose interests lie primarily in marketing.

In considering arguments for and against limiting free speech in other areas--with pornography, for example--the courts have generally asked whether there was redeeming social value to the material in question. When applying this criterion, they have often ruled in favor of limiting free speech. No redeeming social value but much social harm results when manufacturers and programmers are given free rein to sell products to children.

We need to ask ourselves about the long-term social costs of the erosion of play and the loss of imagination in childhood. We have a responsibility as adults to provide healthy environments that help children reach their full potential--and that put that goal above self-interest.

The only way to protect children from commercial exploitation is to enact bold legislation that will make the actions of manufacturers more compatible with the best that society can offer to children.

Vol. 08, Issue 21, Page 32

Published in Print: February 15, 1989, as Advocating Regulation of Children's Television
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